Exclusive: Qatar Airways says it will need state support as cash runs out

DUBAI (Reuters) – Qatar Airways will have to seek government support eventually, Chief Executive Akbar al-Baker told Reuters on Sunday, warning that the Middle East carrier could soon run out of the cash needed to continue flying.

Several states have stepped in to help airlines hammered by the coronavirus pandemic that has virtually halted international travel, with the United States offering $58 billion in aid.

Qatar Airways is one of few airlines continuing to maintain scheduled commercial passenger services and over the next two weeks expects to operate 1,800 flights.

“We have received many requests from governments all over the world, embassies in certain countries, requesting Qatar Airways not to stop flying,” Baker said by phone from Doha.

The state-owned carrier is operating flights to Europe, Asia and Australia, repatriating people who have been left stranded after many countries shut their borders.

“We will fly as long as it is necessary and we have requests to get stranded people to their homes, provided the airspace is open and the airports are open,” Baker said.

However, he warned that the airline was burning through cash and only had enough to sustain operations for a “very short period”.

“We will surely go to our government eventually,” Baker added.

He declined to say when the airline would need state aid, which could come in the form of loans or equity, but said it was taking measures to conserve cash.

Employees have taken paid and unpaid leave voluntarily and Baker said he had forfeited his salary until the airline returns to full operations. Staff would not be forced to take pay cuts, though Baker said some had offered to do so.

The airline had said before the pandemic it would report a loss this financial year because of a regional political dispute that forces it to fly longer, more expensive routes to avoid airspace that it had been banned from using by some of neighboring countries.

Rivals Emirates and Etihad Airways, of the United Arab Emirates, have grounded passenger operations, which Baker said had not benefited his airline.

Qatar Airways has been operating some flights at 50% occupancy or less and if it fills 45% of seats on flights over the next two weeks it will carry about 250,000 passengers.

“We are not taking advantage … this is a time to serve people who want to be with their loved ones in a very trying time,” Baker said.

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At home with coronavirus, UK's Johnson writes to the nation

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is self-isolating at 10 Downing Street after testing positive for coronavirus, will write to every UK household to urge people to stay at home.

Johnson, who has described his symptoms as mild, is leading the government’s response to the crisis, chairing meetings by video conference. The health minister, Matt Hancock, has also tested positive and is working from home.

“We know things will get worse before they get better,” Johnson will write in his letter, which will be sent to 30 million households across the United Kingdom starting from next week.

“But we are making the right preparations, and the more we all follow the rules, the fewer lives will be lost and the sooner life can return to normal,” he will say, according to a statement from Downing Street.

Britain has reported 17,089 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 1,019 deaths. The peak of the epidemic in the country is expected to come in a few weeks.

After initially taking relatively modest steps compared with other European nations, Johnson ramped up his response to coronavirus in the past week, ordering pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops to close and making social distancing compulsory.

In his letter, he will thank all those working for the state-funded National Health Service (NHS), which provides free healthcare to everyone living in the United Kingdom and inspires huge respect across society.

“It has been truly inspirational to see our doctors, nurses and other carers rise magnificently to the needs of the hour,” Johnson will say.

“Thousands of retired doctors and nurses are returning to the NHS – and hundreds of thousands of citizens are volunteering to help the most vulnerable.

“That is why, at this moment of national emergency, I urge you, please, to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

The letter will come with a leaflet containing the government’s advice on hand washing, rules on leaving the house, guidance for those self-isolating with symptoms or shielding vulnerable people, and explanations of symptoms.

The letter and leaflet are part of the government’s public information campaign on coronavirus, and are expected to cost 5.8 million pounds ($7 million) to print and distribute.

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Uzbek doctor, 39, dies after coronavirus self-treatment

TASHKENT (Reuters) – A doctor in Uzbekistan died on Saturday after unsuccessfully trying to treat a coronavirus infection that he kept secret, the Central Asian nation’s healthcare ministry said.

The 39-year-old man had been in contact with Uzbek “patient zero”, it said in a statement, who appeared to have infected him.

He was hospitalized on March 26 in grave condition and died two days later, becoming the second coronavirus patient to die in the former Soviet republic.

Uzbekistan has confirmed 104 cases of the virus and has locked down all of its provinces and barred citizens from leaving their homes except for work or essential shopping.

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UK will have done well if fewer than 20,000 die, NHS medical director says

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom will have done well if it comes through the coronavirus crisis with fewer than 20,000 deaths, Stephen Powis, the national medical director of the National Health Service, said on Saturday.

When asked if he hoped that the United Kingdom was not on the same trajectory as countries such as Italy, Powis said: “If we can keep deaths below 20,000 we will have done very well in this epidemic.”

“If it is less than 20,000… that would be a good result though every death is a tragedy, but we should not be complacent about that,” said Powis, speaking at a news conference in Downing Street alongside Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

He said the NHS had been working incredibly hard to increase the intensive care capacity beyond the 4,000 beds it typically had.

He said the NHS was preparing operating theatres and recovery areas to take critically ill patients. He said that was going on in London hospitals and almost doubling capacity though it had not yet been used to treat patients.

“At the moment, I am confident the capacity is there,” Powis said. “We have not reached capacity.”

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US trade war with China deepens as Trump refuses to reduce medical supply tariffs

In December, President Donald Trump agreed to a phase one agreement after a trade war with China. But according to former officials and analysts, the President’s concern was that emergency adjustments could undermine their position as Beijing’s contenders, which could give Trump a boost in the November elections.

Vanessa Sciarra, vice-president of trade and investment policy with the National Foreign Trade Council, said: “There will be inexorable pressure to relax the tariffs. But the administration is going to hold the line as long as they possibly can because they see this is so fundamental to their trade policy,

“There’s a lot of internal debate that you can’t give China something for nothing and how to go forward.”

In the December agreement, Trump advocated for a policy for settling disagreements that is “supposed to hold a stick over the Chinese,” she added.

“It undermines his whole plan if the US starts unilaterally undercutting the agreement.”

After claiming for weeks that the coronavirus was not a serious threat, President Trump has been compelled to make concessions on Chinese medical imports that were added to the Federal Register.

On March 10 and 12, the administration momentarily removed the tariffs on protective clothing including gloves and medical goggles.

On Friday night, The Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) introduced a feedback channel for medical provision importers that think tariffs should be relieved, saying : “This comment process does not replace the current exclusion process.”

Detractors agree that the levies should be slashed quickly. Chad Bown, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), said: “If your strategy is to cut yourself off from China, which is the largest supplier of medical equipment, at this time of greatest need, that’s a big problem”.

Top officials in the Trump administration and Congress see the global crisis as a chance to debilitate international ties with China, decrease global trade movements and bestow blame on Beijing.

Recently, various Republican senators have proposed laws that aim to reduce America’s dependence on China.

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Detractors warn that applying high tariffs on Chinese medical supplies could have implications beyond the trade codes and potentially cost hundreds of lives.

Chad Brown added that insufficient US organisation “is a bit more self-inflicted because of the trade war,

“We put tariffs on all of those products.”

The March reductions excluded levies on few imported Chinese medical supplies.

US$1.1 billion of goods that could result helpful in battling the coronavirus are still under a 25 percent tariff.

“The US, I believe, was justified in adopting a much more aggressive policy toward China,” said Clete Willems, a partner in Washington with the law firm Akin Gump.

“But my worry is that we’re going too far,” he added. “Global problems require global solutions”

Ohio-based manufacturer Gojo industries is in dire demand as it produces dispenser for the Purell hand sanitiser, a key product to avoid spreading the virus.

Although the dispensers are made in the US, two of its main components are imported from China.

Nicole Bivens Collinson, head of international trade and government relations at the law firm representing Gojo, said: “They may be manufactured in the US, but it’s a global supply chain,

“We asked for an exemption. They denied it. This is for friggin’ hand sanitiser.”

Before the US-China trade war, American tariffs on around US$22 billion in imported medical supplies ranged from zero to under 8 percent.

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U.S. House leaders plan to pass $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill Friday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expected the chamber to pass an estimated $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill when it meets on Friday, after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the unprecedented economic rescue legislation on Wednesday evening.

“Tomorrow we’ll bring the bill to the floor. It will pass with strong bipartisan support,” Pelosi, a Democrat, told reporters.

The legislation will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks once the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passes it and Republican President Donald Trump signs it into law, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

The Republican-led Senate approved the bill – which would be the largest fiscal stimulus measure ever passed by Congress – by 96 votes to zero late on Wednesday, after days of intense negotiations between Democratic and Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials.

The unanimous Senate vote, a rare departure from bitter partisanship in Washington, underscored how seriously members of Congress are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system reels.

The unanimous support also increased the bill’s chances of easily winning approval in the House.

The package is intended to flood the country with cash in an effort to stem the crushing impact on the economy of an intensifying pandemic that has killed more than 1,000 people in the United States and infected nearly 70,000.

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The U.S. Labor Department reported on Thursday that the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

Pelosi said there was no question more money would be needed to fight the coronavirus. She said House committees would be working on the next phase in the near term, even if the full chamber is not in session. Lawmakers have been told to be on call for possible votes.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy also backs the relief plan passed by the Senate. But he wants it to be allowed to work before deciding whether more legislation was needed.

“This will be probably the largest bill anybody in Congress has ever voted for,” he told reporters.

Only two other countries, China and Italy, have more coronavirus cases than the United States. The World Health Organization has warned that the country looks set to become the global pandemic’s epicenter.

The massive coronavirus rescue bill follows two others that became law this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the total $4.7 trillion the federal government spends annually.

Trump has promised to sign the bill as soon as it passes the House.

Pelosi said House leaders were planning a voice vote on the rescue plan on Friday, but would be prepared for other contingencies. She had said that if there were calls for a roll-call vote, a ballot recorded by name, lawmakers might be able to vote by proxy, as not all would be able to be in Washington.

“If somebody has a different point of view (about the bill), they can put it in the record,” she said.

There was some opposition. Republican Representative Thomas Massie said he opposes the bill, and was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing it to pass on a voice vote, rather than recording every House member’s position on it.

“I’m having a real hard time with this,” Massie said on 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati.

McCarthy predicted the measure would pass Friday morning following a debate.

The $2.2 trillion bill includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

And it includes $400 million to expand voting by mail and early voting in every state, amid some concern that coronavirus could interview with November’s general election. The virus has already postponed some of the primary elections, or nominating contests, to pick which Democrat will oppose Trump as he vies for re-election.

The House has 430 members, most of whom have been out of Washington since March 14. Many want to return for the vote, but it would be difficult for all to attend, given that at least two have tested positive for the coronavirus, a handful of others are in self-quarantine, and several states have issued stay-at-home orders. There are five vacant House seats.

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune, missed Wednesday’s vote because he was not feeling well. His spokesman said Thune, 59, flew back to his state, South Dakota, on a charter flight Wednesday, accompanied by a Capitol Police officer and wearing a mask.

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Treasury: U.S. will be 'compensated' for assistance to airlines

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Friday that taxpayers will “compensated” for providing up to $25 billion in direct grants to the airline industry.

“I’ve been very clear this is not an airline bailout,” Mnuchin told Fox Business Network Friday. “It is support to the airlines for national security reasons that the taxpayers are going to be compensated for.”

U.S. airlines are preparing to tap the government to cover payroll in a sharp travel downturn triggered by the coronavirus, even after the government warned it may take stakes in exchange for bailout funds or other financial instruments, people familiar with the matter said.

Under the bill approved Friday by the U.S. House of Representatives, Mnuchin can demand equity, warrants or other financial instruments to “provide appropriate compensation to the federal government.” Mnuchin did not directly answer whether he will seek warrants or equity.

The Treasury has an internal working group already discussing how to proceed, people briefed on the matter said. A person briefed on the matter said Mnuchin is expected to take a hard line with the airlines who had threatened to furlough tens of thousands of workers without immediate cash.

Airline stocks fell Friday on Mnuchin’s comments.

American Airlines Inc (AAL.O) fell 6%, while Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) fell 9% and JetBlue Airways (JBLU.O) fell 7%.

“We have people coming from other agencies in the government to come and help us out,” Mnuchin said, saying officials are working at “lighting speed.”

American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said Thursday the largest U.S. airline is eligible for $12 billion of the $50 billion in U.S. government loans and grants. Parker said the conditions for the grants are “not currently well-defined.” But he added “I expect their terms will not be onerous.”

Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) said Friday the “payroll assistance funds ensure there will be no involuntary furloughs or reductions in pay rates through Sept. 30.”

Airlines are supposed to receive payments within 10 days of the law’s signing.

Boeing Co (BA.N) has sought at least $60 billion in government loans or loan guarantees aerospace industry. Earlier this week, Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun said the company was not interested in giving the government equity in exchange for loans.

“Boeing has said they have no intention of using the program – that may change in the future,” Mnuchin said.

Boeing did not immediately comment Friday. “The taxpayers will be fully compensated,” Mnuchin said. “No bailout for Boeing or anyone else.”

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Hundreds to be evacuated from coronavirus-hit ship off Panama

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) – Hundreds of passengers on a cruise ship, where four people have died and over 130 others have influenza-like symptoms, including at least two with the coronavirus, will be transferred to a sister ship, Panamanian authorities said on Saturday.

“The ship which could not dock at any port in South America will remain in Panamanian waters 8 nautical miles from the coast, since it did not receive approval from Panamanian health authorities to cross the (Panama) Canal,” Panama’s maritime authority said.

It said 401 asymptomatic passengers will be transferred from cruise operator Holland America Line’s 238-meter (781-foot) MS Zaandam vessel to the Rotterdam, a sister ship.

There are 1,243 guests and 586 crew on board the Zaandam, as well as four doctors and four nurses, the cruise operator has said.

Holland America, which is owned by Carnival Corp, said on Friday the Zaandam, previously on a South American cruise, was trying to transit the Panama Canal and make its way to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But Panama’s government denied it access to the canal for sanitary reasons, leaving passengers and crew wondering when they would get home.

“Panamanian authorities have not officially confirmed whether the cruise will be quarantined after it was confirmed that two passengers tested positive for coronavirus, and the cause of death of four older adults is being investigated,” the maritime authority added.

About 70 healthy passengers on the Zaandam have already been boarded onto tenders pulled up on the port side of the ship for transfer to the Rotterdam, according to a passenger.

“I understand that about 70 ‘healthy’ passengers have transferred so far … People transferring to tender as we speak. I have a full view,” said Ian Rae, a London-based Scotsman on the Zaandam with his wife.

Rae said guests who are exhibiting symptoms are being asked to remain on the Zaandam, which has passengers from a host of nations including Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and New Zealand.

“It would seem that the transfer is based on a temperature test and answering no to four questions,” including whether passengers have suffered from cough, fatigue or fever in the past 10 days, Rae said.

He and his wife passed the temperature test but answered that they, like many fellow passengers, have suffered from a cough.

“As a result we shall not be transferring to Rotterdam.”

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Tokyo confirms more than 50 new coronavirus cases, record daily increase: NHK

TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo has confirmed more than 50 new coronavirus cases, which is a record daily increase, national broadcaster NHK reported on Saturday.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has requested that tens of millions of people in the capital and surrounding regions should avoid non-essential, non-urgent outings until April 12, following a surge in coronavirus infections this week that she said put Tokyo on the brink of an emergency.

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